Was it coincidence or magic? Alice Gorman wrote 100 things she wanted in a man and buried the list in a closet. And then, oddly enough, a man who matched the list almost exactly strolled into her life. Seriously, people, how did that happen? Martha Beck, O's life coach, reads Alice's story "The Love List" and explains why it workedæ Okay, fess up—at some point you've had your own magic list, haven't you? I just can't believe Alice and I are the only people who've written down everything we want in a mate—or a home, or a job, or whatever. In fact, reading Alice's story makes me want to create more lists of my own—I'm not even sure of the topic, but I'll think of something. This activity is irresistible for any life coach (definition: "someone who makes people write lists of everything they want").
The only problem with magic lists is that their efficacy is, um, patchy. For every person whose boyfriend fits 98 percent of her criteria, there are dozens of others who find Mr. Right smoking drain cleaner in the basement and maintaining a web identity named Daisy Hotrocks. Nevertheless, I believe Alice's story because I've seen many other magic list cases just as astonishing. Walk a mile in my life-coaching loafers and you'll start believing in freaking leprechauns.
So what's the scoop? Is list-making mere perceptual bias, or can thinking actually attract things in physical reality? My answer—yes, and yes. In other words, there are conditions under which I've seen lists work like the charms they're meant to be, and others where they don't work at all. Knowing the difference between a power list and its powerless twin may be your key to living a fairy tale like Alice's.
What Magic Lists Aren't
I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade, but there's considerable evidence that—brace yourself—not all our thoughts come true. If thinking were absolute power, every plane carrying an aviophobe would crash, and every lottery ticket would win. Humans are often afflicted by things they aren't thinking about (I, for one, don't believe AIDS babies lie around brooding about immune disorder). And although we've all read about celebrities who wrote themselves prescient checks for millions of dollars when they were just starting out, plenty of people write such checks without ever accumulating enough to finance their own funerals.
In contrast to Alice's story, consider this real-life snippet from a post on the Internet: Okay, I'm tired of beating around the bush. I'm a beautiful (spectacularly beautiful) 25-year-old girl. … I'm looking to get married to a guy who makes at least half a million a year. … I know a woman [who is] married to an investment banker and lives in Tribeca, and she's not as pretty as I am. … So what is she doing right? How do I get to her level?
Despite the brevity and clarity of this woman's mate-attraction list (money, money, and, oh, yeah, money), she hasn't succeeded in hooking up with a single customer…I mean, suitor. If magic lists work, how can this be? I don't claim to have the conclusive answer, but after watching hundreds of lives unfold, I'm going to venture a hypothesis.
What Magic Lists Are
The power or powerlessness of your magic list depends on the level of awareness from which you write it. Picture your inner life as three concentric spheres. Call the outermost ring the Shallows. This is the part of you that's focused only on the physical world and the power to control it.
Life in the Shallows
When you're operating purely from the Shallows, you see yourself as isolated and separate. Your behavior consists of running from things you dread and grasping onto things you desire. The wisdom traditions of every culture advise us that this is neither psychologically fulfilling nor metaphysically powerful. No matter what you accumulate, you'll always risk losing it, never get deep inner peace from it (remember King Midas?), and ultimately have to part with it.
The magic lists people make in the Shallows reflect their obsession with stuff—getting it, keeping it. In my experience, they work like lead balloons. The Spectacularly Beautiful Girl's list is a case in point. Her gold-digging will repel most men, and even if she snags a millionaire, she'll experience only tentative, impermanent contentment. To put it in her own blunt terms, she won't be a Spectacularly Beautiful Girl forever.
Fortunately, below the crust of the Shallows is an aspect of consciousness I call the Core of Peace. We can reach this whether we're rich or poor, married or single, famous or totally unknown—in fact, we've already reached it, because it is our essence. Sadly, most of us never realize this. We're so obsessed with the Shallows that we lose touch with our Core. We experience the disconnection as an aching inner void, which we diligently try to fill with more Shallow goodies.
Our culture, grounded in empirical science and the European Romantic tradition, sees material wealth and/or the perfect lover as the keys to happiness. That's why so many relationships disintegrate over monetary arguments, or the accusation "You stopped making me happy." Again, all ancient wisdom traditions teach that no external person, place, or thing can "make" us happy. They recommend various methods for rediscovering the Core of Peace: meditation, introspection, renunciation of shallow attachments, the exercise of focused kindness and compassion.
People who become skilled at such pursuits report feeling more peaceful, joyful, and connected. Neurologists are discovering that these folks may have actually increased neural connections in parts of their brains responsible for happiness. Yeah, yeah, whatever—the really cool thing about the Core of Peace is that when you go there and make magic lists, they work!
I can't explain this, I've just seen it—over and over and over. When my clients are in the Shallows, I can tell that the dreams they describe just won't fly; when they're speaking from their Core, I feel a kind of "click," like a puzzle piece fitting in place, and I know I'll see their dreams come true. I can feel the difference as they express the desire—and so can you. It's the same as the difference between a salesperson's flattery and the love of a faithful dog. One feels icky, the other pure. The sense of this may come from body language, vocal tone, or the vague New Age catchphrase "energy," but it's real. Scientifically measurable? Not yet. Tangible? Absolutely.
I've experienced this difference myself, many times. I once rediscovered an old journal in which I'd listed many desires, some calculated and probable, others deep but seemingly impossible. Reading over all the lists, I was stunned to realize that while almost nothing on the "logical" lists had actually happened, virtually everything on the "impossible" lists had.
For example, shortly after finishing my first book, I developed a strange longing to write short essays for smart, insightful readers—exactly what I'm doing right now. I knew nothing about magazine publishing and didn't formulate my desire in terms of magazine writing. But two days later, a New York editor substituting for an absent colleague literally stumbled over my manuscript in the colleague's office. She read it, liked it, convinced the editor in chief of that publication to hire me…and later became editor in chief of this very publication. So here I am, awestruck, still riding the wave of my magic list.
Mind you, I'd accrued 10 years of sweat equity and countless devastating rejections before selling that first book. My Shallow hopes had burned away completely; my writing self was part of my Core of Peace. But why did the incredibly busy editor take time to read an obscure manuscript by a total unknown? Why did she convince someone else to hire me, at no advantage to herself? I haven't a clue. But things like that happen often, to me and those around me, when we dwell in the Core of Peace. So why doesn't everyone go there immediately?
Because of the Ring of Fire, that's why.
The Ring of Fire
With apologies to Johnny Cash, I use the phrase Ring of Fire to mean the burning sensation of losing our identification with everything we love in the Shallows. Alice did this as she coped with divorce, her second husband's mental illness and death, and numerous other heartbreaks. She made her magic list after accepting the loss of her surface hope: "Maybe I am not supposed to share my life."
This embrace of loss is what paradoxically seems to attract gain. I can't explain this, but I've seen it—often. My friend "Helen" was told by doctors that she had less than a year to live. She made provisions to support her children, grieved infinite losses, researched methods for dying on her own terms rather than lingering in agony. Then it turned out the doctors were wrong. Helen will live—but not as she did in the Shallows. Letting go of everything, she says, put her in a different world. "It's almost scary," she told me. "Everything I think seems to materialize. I picture my ideal house, job, a school situation for my children, whatever, and it happens. I swear, if I held out my hand and said 'apple,' one would appear." She held out her hand in illustration. Another friend pulled an apple from her bag and put it on Helen's palm. We laughedænervously.
This kind of experience has become weirdly familiar to me, as it may be to Alice and possibly to you. Perhaps when our shallow desires burn away and we write what we really want, we're primed to notice veins of gold in every part of life. Maybe list-making simply focuses our attention on what was always available. Did I mention I have no idea how this works? But if you let go of everything mutable or temporary and express your yearning from the pure core that remains, I suspect you'll find that same magic. You can tell me all about it—later. Right now, I've got some lists to write.